A Gaelic polytheist reacts to ‘Miasma’ (Pt 1) – The Song of Amergin

This is a poem about the source of my gods’ power – and mine.

I am the wind on the sea.
I am the ocean wave.
I am the sound of the billows.
I am the seven-horned stag.
I am the eagle on the rock.
I am the flash from the sun.
I am the fairest of flowers.
I am the raging boar.
I am the salmon in the pool.
I am the lake on the plain.
I am the word of knowledge.
I am the point of the spear.
I am the god that makes fire in the head.
Who levels the mountain?
Who speaks the age of the moon?
Who has been where the sun sleeps?
Who, if not I?
– Song of Amergin (mythical Irish invocation – taken from several translations)

To my gods, the earth is not foreign, or hostile, or unclean. They were here first. Longer ago than I can imagine, they dwelt in every atom of the earth. They infused it, welcomed it, loved it, with all its dirt and all its mess and all its blood and all its sex and all its death. Long before we started trying to reject our humanity (in the vain hope that that would somehow make us more spiritual), my gods moved deep within the playground of primordial pre-human muck. Dancing in the dirt, living in the trees, shagging under proto-mountains, feeling their way through the darkness, experiencing embodied reality.

Read the Song of Amergin again, if you are willing. Who is ‘I’? I have no idea. I don’t know if Amergin is channelling a particular god here. Yet the Song drips with divine influence. And isn’t that the point? Arriving in Ireland, the human Amergin accesses the same power as the gods. He does that so well that he defeats them. As he describes it, it is the power of the earth that he invokes – deep, dark, messy, mucky, embodied earth. Brought forth from primordial chaos, and one day to return to it.

The Three Realms are connected. Land, Sea and Sky – we belong in all of them, and so do the gods.

My gods dwell in the rivers, the sea, the mountains, and even in the swirling chaos of urban life. To come close to them, I need to come to closer to the earth – not wash the earth off me in some misguided attempt to ‘purify’ myself. My spirituality, like the power of the gods, arises from what is earthy in me. My deep, earthy, spiritual matter. To some polytheists and pagans – and especially, I think, to Gaelic polytheists – the earth is not something that we need to ‘rise above’. Humanity is not something we have to put aside in order to honour the gods.

Miasma?

There has been a conversation, in response to Many Gods West, about ‘miasma’, and about how we all need to use and work with this concept/practice. This is a Greek concept that I do not understand very well in terms of actual practice (because I am not a Hellenic polytheist). It’s to do with purifying yourself. As the concept has been explained to me, it’s about removing from yourself the things that the gods do not like, because they are holy and we are human.

But that’s a concept from an entirely different religion from mine. I think that, in the joy of finding a polytheist community out there, we can sometimes forget that we are not all one community. We are all working from within very different spiritual systems. Gaelic polytheists are not on the same religious/spiritual path as Hellenic polytheists, nor as Heathens, nor as Kemetic polytheists…

And in that forgetting, we forget some of the most important things about honouring our gods. I do not serve ‘all the gods’. I serve my gods – the ones who I believe reached out to me. Not for any reason of socially constructed Romantic concepts of ancestry, or ‘cultural purity’ (*vomit*). I serve those particular gods because (I believe that) I chose them and they chose me. No other gods have called me but they. There is no grand command sent down from on high that I need to honour a Power that I don’t relate to, in a way that I can’t understand. If I wanted to, I could – it would probably involve me going through something akin to a conversion process, since the way (for example) a Hellenic polytheist thinks about their gods is not the way I think about my gods. But I don’t have to.

And that means no one gets to impose their way of thinking about the gods onto me.

In fact, I have sacred taboos against honouring entire pantheons of gods. And that, at least in part, is because of what I would have to do to honour them. Things which could violate some of my most sacred virtues and vows – like hospitality, honouring the earth, or my own concepts of justice.

Throwing Off What I Don’t Need

I am already pure enough, just by being part of the earth. I don’t believe I have to cleanse myself of human or earthly things.

But there are things I need to do, if I want to become more fully human.

I need to throw off anything I do not need, anything that does not serve me, or that does not serve the gods. That is how I can move in better harmony with the pathways of the Xartus, the great tree of life. I need to seek justice, not injustice. I need to offer hospitality, probably my highest form of spiritual and community practice, which I fail at all the time, but which I can only hope to get better at.

I also need to do some things that are useful to me, based on my own experience. For me, protection and connection are important. Being around my gods every day, if only briefly, and making offerings to them regularly. Having a hearth shrine where I light a fire (a tiny candle-shaped one in my case!) that is the centre of my home. My Brighid’s cross above the entrance to my home. The ritual of hospitality (there it is again) that I need to try to offer to those who come through my doors. Other rituals that I do as the year turns. The prayers I say daily that build up a connection between me and the Sacred Three. The fires I burn at key times (and sometimes burning certain things, like juniper). And, most important of all, without which none of these things would matter: seeking justice in all things, in all my actions, in all my work, in all my interactions with my community. These are all small things, and probably look very insignificant to a lot of people. But they are important for me, for connection and for protection.

And all of these are about reminding me that I am human, and connected, and embodied. That I am living on and with the earth, and that I only exist as part of my community. They’re not about forgetting my humanity.

If I need to lose anything, I need to lose the things that are un-human about me. My tendency to get really selfish, to forget about hospitality and the importance of community. My ability to get wrapped up in myself and what I need, and ignoring what others need. My ability to ignore what I already know about who needs justice and how I can act more justly, and (worst of all) to pretend I’m a warrior for justice when I can be a terrible coward who avoids the hard work it requires.

There are monsters within me, fomori of the heart. I need to throw off what I don’t need, that keeps me mired in the monstrous, and keeps me from the gods and the community.

But, again. Nothing to do with miasma.

Many Religious Paths

I was having a conversation about why people need gods, with modern druids, recently. Modern druidry is incredibly diverse on the issue of (poly)theism – it’s an orthopraxic religion, not an orthodoxic one – we are druids because of what we do, not because of what we believe. (Which is how I can be both a Gaelic polytheist and a modern druid at the same time. There aren’t conflicting belief systems there.) Someone was talking about not believing in gods, in part because they aren’t keen on the ‘lists of associations with gods’ that you can find on every other cheaply-made witchy website on the internet. (That’s got nothing to do with my gods, I said, though I don’t know if anyone heard…) But I have no need to change their minds about deities. Their spiritual/religious ways are their ways. My ways of relating to the gods are mine.

And you know what’s really nice about modern druidry, with its orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy? No one tried to change my mind, and I didn’t try to change theirs. No one said “Oh but you must think about the gods this way.” And that’s how I know where I want to find my community.

And this was an interaction with someone who is agnostic on the subject of deities. This ‘miasma’ stuff – this is coming from polytheists. People who claim to value the gods – but who know nothing of my gods, and have no right to speak on their behalf. Nor to try to convert me to their way of thinking.

You are the Mountain.
You are the Wilderness.
You are the Wild One.
You were the there when the sea first drew breath
and the land rose up from its depths
and the sky settled on the horizon
You will be here until the land drowns,
Until the sea rises up and swallows her whole,
Until the sky falls and the world burns…

– My own invocation, of Cailleach Bhearra of the Beara peninsula – part of my dedication oath

Stay tuned for a follow-up post to come, about the problems of the concept of ‘miasma’ for people who are disabled, or ill, or stigmatised by society…

 

30 Days of Practice: Orlando, the One Sheep, and Me

I was doing so well last week. I was so proud of myself for doing at least some of what I’ve committed to (the daily devotionals – I’ve had a total failure mode around podcasts, but a post on failure can wait for another day). I was telling myself that I was doing really well. Am I not such a balanced spiritual person? Am I not such a great activist? Am I not so good at being a disabled person in a disablist world? I thought that maybe the key was to keep telling myself that, keep thinking positive, keep ‘acting great’ to be great.

And then there was Orlando.

The day before yesterday, my friend messaged me to tell me about the vigil. I was desperate to go, but unlike many of the people who went (probably), I had to think very carefully about going. Every moment had to be planned – from getting there (can’t park in Soho – too scared to get buses at the moment), to being in the crowds (will I get scared and have a meltdown and be an embarrassment to myself and everyone with me?), to getting around Soho (terrible accessibility of streets and I don’t know if I have the energy for pushing myself around), to going home (will I be able to find a taxi?) A huge amount of spoons had to be measured out and used – see later in the post for what that means. Another wheelchair user passed me in the crowd at one point, said “I’m glad I’m not the only mad wheelie here”. I knew what she meant. I felt vulnerable and stressed out for the whole thing. That was helped immensely by my amazing friends who stood between me and the crowd, and helped me get around, and did lots to support me – I couldn’t have asked for more support. But there I was, thinking about myself. Fifty people had died and more had been injured… and I was worrying about my comfort.

Then, without giving myself a rest, yesterday I spent seven hours volunteering, and being in settings where my brain and body do not cope well. After the first five-hour meeting (hardly any breaks), I came home briefly and I so desperately wanted to go to bed. It was serious desperation – and the idea of being around people and having to behave like a neurotypical person in a meeting was terrifying. My body was screaming at me and my brain was already beginning to hit ‘shutdown’ territory (which happens to some neurodivergent people after a long time of fighting to appear neurotypical and wearing ourselves out). But I went out to the next two-hour plus meeting anyway, because I had said I would, and being true to my word is part of the virtue of Honour. But I had forgotten to take stock of quite how much things had affected me this week, including the attack and the vigil. I was seriously running low on spoons. And there I was, thinking about myself. Again.

Much better people than me have written about Orlando. People who are writing, and silenced, from within the Latinx LGBT community, like Vincent Cervantes, and people writing about being Muslim and queer at a time like this, like Amanullah De Sondy. People who have called for voices to be amplified that are not being heard, in the midst of the narrative-creating and the news biases and the many, many agendas. People like Mariella Mosthof and Ferdiad and Theo Wildcroft and Pat Mosley. I’m seeing many white LGBT people pondering intersectionality and privilege in the wake of this tragedy. It’s important stuff – lived social theory, social justice in writing.

It’s also not helping. To admit this is to demonstrate my horrendous privilege. I can actually sit in my comfortable house, with its decent security, and know that I’m probably not going to be attacked tomorrow (although the rate of disability hate crime is rising and I feel more unsafe every time I leave the house). I sit here as a white, rich person (and as a neurodivergent* person and a disabled person who seriously struggles with life, and doesn’t admit that enough). I am someone who will never worry about where my next meal is coming from (someone who has been told by doctors for ten years that I’m making up my illnesses, and recently found out I’ve been denied treatment for one condition for at least that long, as a result). I am someone who can afford to run my car and even the taxis I need to get around, to help me avoid the struggles that most disabled people face while out and about (someone who, on account of using a wheelchair, nonetheless has to plan life in exceptional detail, and who, on account of neurodiversity in an ableist world, doesn’t cope well with the execution of those plans). I am someone who lives in a country with an NHS and will never go hungry in order to pay medical bills (someone whose chronic illness regularly ruins my life and never, ever lets up – even when I ‘look’ OK). I am someone who can send my PA out into the world to do things, and thereby avoid some of the daily disablism and abuse, because I can afford a PA (someone who gets shouted at in the streets and often has to tell people to stop pushing my wheelchair without asking me because you might be about to break my fingers, not to mention taking away my agency and my right to attempt the hill on my own and also my right not to be grabbed by a bloody stranger).

I think my battles matter… to some extent. But I am struggling to balance my fear and exhaustion with my incredible privilege and my safety and my very comfortable life. It’s difficult. Those of us who have wide intersections in our lives between privilege and oppression sometimes struggle with this. It’s OK to admit it. But also, it isn’t.

I am not a queer Latinx. I am not a person of colour in the LGBT community. I am not living under US laws, with their bathroom segregation and removal of rights for trans people, or in US culture, with its violence towards my LGBT siblings (especially trans people). I am not a trans person on the American continent or in other countries, at high risk of being murdered, and at risk of having to survive via sex work in order to live and to pay for surgery (associated with even more risk of murder). I do not live in a country where it is illegal for me to be in a same-sex relationship. I do not live at a time when I could be sectioned or worse for being attracted to people of my sex or for being gender variant. There is so much I should be deeply grateful for.

But I am still writing a blog post about me, not about them, today. I am that person. I think that, today, I would rather admit it, than pretend to be better than I am.

It’s a fact I’m trying to take on board, that this tragedy has clearly affected us more than others (as an LGBTQI community) because it relates to us. It’s human to feel closer to our tribe than to the rest of humanity. It’s also deeply problematic.

Two metaphors: spoons and filters

Two metaphors are useful to talk about, at this point. ‘Spoons‘ are a metaphor widely used in the disability and chronic illness communities, to talk about measures of energy (or of coping skills, or similar). A lot of non-disabled people have at least enough spoons to get through the day. They may use one for a shower in the morning and one to make breakfast, but they still have two hundred left. In comparison, I may start the day with twenty. Then choices have to be made. Will I be able to make myself cups of tea today, or is it more important to be able to work? When I’m having a day with a few extra spoons, I may ‘look’ like I have as many as most people. But I’m still calculating in my head all the time. Do I have enough energy to buy the food that I’ve been asked to bring to the meeting, and still make it through the meeting? Do I have enough spoons to get myself lunch at the conference, or do I just have to sit here hungry so that I can get through the next talk without having to leave? Am I going to manage the whole of this event, or am I going to run out of spoons or the ability to act neurotypical, and have to run away (and be stared at as I leave oh gods please stop staring at me)?

The other useful metaphor is that of filters. I live my life filtering out my neurodiversity and its effects. I work hard every second of the day, using a lot of energy, thinking consciously about how to act in seminars and with supervisors and with friends and in meetings and in crowds and in pubs and in shops and on public transport. Imagine needing to think actively about every single thing you do, a mix of trying to get your brain to function in a world that you don’t fit into, and trying to act like it’s all unconscious and normal for you. Slowly, as I do more and more of this, and get more and more tired, my filters start to drop. You’ll begin to see more and more of the ‘real me’. You probably won’t like her – she’s irritating and unhelpful and gets a lot wrong.

Then the filters will fall away entirely. And then, collapse. Shutdown, or meltdown. A total giving up of brain (and body) that means nothing else is possible – literally – until I am out of ‘danger mode’ according to my neurological systems (which are far better at protecting me than I am).

Back to practice…

Last night, after the meetings were over, I did my daily devotional as planned. (I was too wired from ‘performing’ to sleep, anyway). I’ve been working with empty shrines, on the concept of stripping everything back, nothing left but myself and the Divine:

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Picture: my shrine to Beara, currently empty except for candle, taper and offering bowl.

After all the fear and struggles of the past few days, the emptiness hit me.

I just sat there, at Her empty shrine, and sobbed. The candles burned down. Darkness came. I sat. I loved. I longed. I hated myself. I was afraid. I wrote poetry in my head. I sat. I didn’t wake my spouse. This was about me, and my goddess, and the darkness, and the silence, and the empty altars – and me, empty. I sat.

Lighten our darkness… and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night.[1]
For the night is dark, and I am far from home.[2]

Soon I’ll start building up my shrines again. Starting with an ancestor shrine for the beloved dead of the Orlando shooting and of the many, many other terrorist attacks and state-sponsored violence going on around the world.

*                                        *                                        *                                      *                                         *

Here are two relevant stories that I’ve been pondering recently – told in my own words, so don’t trust their theological accuracy – they are very much my interpretations.

The One Found Sheep

A shepherd had a hundred sheep. He could always tell his own from the others in the fields — he knew their sound, their movement, their little ways. Every evening he took the measure of his sheep, and there they were, always a hundred of them. And then he could sleep as dusk came in, his shepherd’s crook curled around him, the sound of his sheep’s voices a constant in his dreams.

One evening he counted his sheep… and there were ninety-nine of them.

He panicked. Who is missing? Where are they? He searched the places that he could reach and still have his other sheep in sight, but the lost sheep was not there.

And so he left his fields, and left all the rest of his sheep, and went into the roads and out into the far edges of the country. And there he found it, lost in a ditch, unable to get itself unstuck.  

And he carried it home.

– From the Christian tradition

The Myth of Sophia

Sophia was the first creation of the God. She was his Wisdom.

Her daughter, Sophia the younger, was beautiful, but she was not satisfied with her existence, nor with her heavenly consort the Christ. She looked down into the mortal realms and saw a great Light. She longed to be with it. “Why,” she said to the God, “can I not bring the world light and life, and create as you do?”

The God sighed a great, defeated sigh. “You are the child of Wisdom,” he says. “If you think it is wise, go, and create as I do.”

And so, enchanted by the world of matter, Sophia fell. And she created. But her first creations were born of chaos and darkness and fear. Her first son looked at the world and wanted to possess it – and he could not see that anything existed above him. From darkness he ruled the world. He denied wisdom to Adam and Eve.

But Divine Wisdom stayed with them.

The earth-bound Sophia could see that humanity was lost. She sent them the Serpent to teach them that they could think for themselves – but though they began to, they were already corrupted by the darkness and weighed down by the struggles of a corrupted world.

But Divine Wisdom stayed with them.

Unwilling to leave humanity alone, Sophia called on her mother, Sophia the Elder, to send the Christ, if he was willing to leave heaven and come to join her, to help this world and its people.

“And the Logos was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”

And Divine Wisdom stayed with them.

– From the Gnostic tradition

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What if we are not always the sheep, but sometimes the shepherd?

What if we are sometimes Sophia, and sometimes the Christ?

What if we can only rescue ourselves?

And what if we don’t matter?

I have no conclusions. There is only silence, and the empty shrine.

Video: the Gay Men’s Chorus singing at the London vigil for Orlando. A wheelchair’s-eye view.

ETA: The list of the dead and injured in last weekend’s shooting. I’m sorry it took me so long to think to add this to my post. As the Wiccans say, what is remembered, lives.

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*Neurodivergent: a non-medical term used by the community of people affected by autism/ADHD/dypraxia/dyslexia and many other neurologically-affected different ways of being. Those of us who think differently from the ‘neurotypical’ people.  The world is full of neurodiversity. We are different, but not less.

[1] From the traditional night service of the Church of England.
[2] From the hymn ‘Lead Kindly Light’.

Colonialism, Pagan Spirituality, and Us

There’s been a discussion going on about colonialism, on a druid website I sometimes read and contribute to. I have newly developing but important thoughts on the subject, and I thought I should write about them here too – because colonialism and neocolonialism and druidry and Paganism are all mixed up together in complex ways that I believe we need to address.

Note: these are very challenging subjects and thoughts. When I first encountered them, my instinct was to dig in my heels and become defensive. Surely I’m not a coloniser or a racist. I’m a good person. But that kind of thinking is dangerous. We can be good people and be benefitting from colonialism, and even extending its power through our Pagan practice. We do these things unconsciously, because we are part of complex power structures. It’s so important that each of us challenges ourselves on these things… I’ll reflect a bit more on that at the end of the post.

As I’ve said before. I think everyone should read the work of Kavita Maya, who is researching racism and colonialism (and gender) in the Goddess movement in Glastonbury, although her conclusions relate to other Pagan movements too. Her academic work can be found here, and she recently wrote a short general summary of what she’s been doing, which can be found here. She is a colleague of mine and we have talked about this stuff a lot. She has really challenged me, in a way that I think all druids should be challenged, to think more about justice and oppression.

Colonialism is a tricky thing. It’s easy to ‘jump’ back to Roman times in our mind, and think, oh, ‘we’ lost ‘our’ traditions then. But it can be dangerous to identify solely with those pagans, who are not us and are not in our historical situation, when there is so much history in the middle that we need to know about and take responsibility for. As a result, we can too easily forget about things that we need to learn about and from – including Britain’s role in colonialism. We are colonisers, as much as we were colonised – we just did the colonising in other places, and received a huge amount of benefit back here. We continue to benefit from the oppression of other nations and peoples. That’s called neocolonialism.

We must be mindful of Paganism’s tendency to lean on concepts of nationalism that may be harmful to others. For example, are we using symbols and stories that Britain has used in domination of the rest of the world? This can be very harmful to people of colour, immigrants, and others who may want to join our movements. Pagans of colour are often excluded, told to find ‘their own’ traditions (as I wrote about before – an incredibly stupid and racist thing to say) and often do not feel welcome in our very white Pagan movement. But they should be welcome. And welcome is about a lot more than just being ‘friendly’.

In short, colonialism is not something we can just skip over and pretend didn’t happen. What ideologies are we using in our attempts to reclaim older traditions? Do these ideas and stories draw things that have been used to oppress other people? If so, I want nothing to do with them, as I am a druid focused on justice for all. This is difficult, challenging spiritual and emotional Work, rooting out our own relationship to colonialism and how we continue to benefit from it. I think it’s among the most important work we can do, in our work towards the healing of all people and our druidic concepts of healing the land.

I think that our relationship with the land is damaged when we oppress others, here and elsewhere. British colonialism, even though it mainly took place far from these shores, was incredibly harmful to the earth (and to communities of people) in other places. We have benefited and gained at a cost to others and their lands. That benefit on our part, and suffering on the part of others as a result, continues today. The land we live on knows, feels and remembers that, I believe. That’s a personal spiritual view… but one that I often ponder. What do we need to make right, that has gone wrong before? It’s easy to stand on the land and feel all spiritual and connected, and then go away and not act in a way that truly lives out our connection with all life. Is spirituality having any impact on our real life? If not, it’s worthless.

And this is not about feeling guilty for the actions of our ancestors, by the way. It’s about taking responsibility for how we benefit and continue colonialism today.

As a person of Irish origin, I find it difficult when British people try to overlook centuries of oppression of others, and forget it ever happened. Yet the Irish are also doing this today, as much as the British, and forgetting their own oppression as they oppress others. I have a mixed heritage, and I am both a child of colonisers and the colonised. My ancestry, body and life hold the results of both these things. We all do. We all have to live with these contradictions. We may not ‘feel’ like colonisers, but every time we lean on stories or ideas that oppress others, every time we benefit at a cost to other groups or nations, every time we encourage nationalism in any way, we are colonisers. It is possible to be both colonised and a coloniser.

Neocolonialism is alive and well right here and right now. We continue to oppress other, less powerful nations and gain benefit as a result of it. It affects how we behave towards others here in the UK too. Just look at the racism going on against immigrants and Muslims in this country today. It happens because of our inheritance of colonialist ideologies and what we have learned and believed from generations of thinking that ‘Britannia rules the waves’. I think the land holds all of this history, knowledge, experience and pain. My focus, as a druid, is on healing the land and contributing to the healing of all the people who live here, all the wonderful wealth of people who have been coming and going from these shores for countless generations. After all, we are an island nation, and we have never had one static ‘tradition’ or belief. No country has, but Britain has a particularly diverse history of influence of many groups and tribes and peoples. We need to celebrate that, rather than leaning on one interpretation of a history that is mostly made up by (white) Romantics and which is nostalgic for an era that may not even have existed.

I will be happier when I see a British druidry with many people of colour involved in it, and when I see real diversity in druidry, not just a sea of white faces (not to mention groves full of nothing but straight people and able-bodied people and binary-gendered people and neurotypical people and middle class people). Then I will feel less like I belong to a tradition that buys into ideologies related to colonialism and neocolonialism. I will feel like I am truly following the Virtues I identify with as part of my spiritual path(s): Hospitality, Integrity, Discernment, Justice.

This article, by Vibha Shetiya, gives another insight into the concept of what ‘our’ traditions are, and whether they can really be related to our ‘ancestry’, which is never from only one place. She says ‘I’m just me’. Britain is a complex, mixed place that holds many histories and much pain of many people. Can we not recognise that we have a very complex ancestry, and indeed that concepts of ancestry and ‘our’ traditions are extremely difficult things that come with a lot of baggage?

This is also giving me thoughts about ancestor work and colonialism and Paganism and history. I’ll share more of those in another post, I think.

As I said at the beginning of this post, this is very difficult stuff. It’s not easy to take it on board. But I believe it’s part of the Work of a modern druid, if we claim to be spiritual and aim to be awake and aware, to feel the pain of these realisations and confront them anyway. Let the darkness of colonialism and oppression in me be exposed and rooted out by the Light. Isn’t that the whole reason I’m a druid, working in a spiritual tradition of justice? I think it should be.

On Doing Nothing, Pt 1: On Listening, Not Derailing

Let Pagans of Colour Speak

Let’s start with some stories told by Pagans of colour in the Pagan community, about their experiences there. All very much worth reading. Indeed, I don’t think you can properly participate in the current ‘controversy’ in the Pagan blogosphere if you haven’t read some writing by Pagans of colour on this subject.

The Invisibility Cloak: Race and the Pagan. A Pagan who goes by the username Black Witch talks at AfroPunk about how the Pagan community reacts when criticised by minorities within it, including people of colour, about how it treats them. It’s disturbingly similar to some of the reactions in the current ‘controversy’. “Let the minority open its mouth, even criticize Pagans and their shortcomings in the culture department and watch that cooing and sympathy drop quick. All of a sudden, it’s “We’re being attacked” and rationalizing ahoy… Mention words like “institutional racism”, “tokenization” and “privilege” and up come the defenses. I’ve dealt with a stunning variety of Pagan women or Pagan men who thought they don’t benefit at all from any form of institutional anything and definitely not privilege because they’re Pagan, bigotry only benefits you if you’re Christian….”

KW on Being Black and Pagan. “As a minority in a minority religion, the most frequently asked question I get is “How can you be a Pagan, you’re BLACK?!” This implies that my religion is defined by my race, an assumption that I hope no one really thinks is valid… The call of the Gods is just as strong in us as it is in say, someone of Anglo-Saxon descent. Another assumption made is that if I am Pagan, then I must practice Vodoun and/or be pledged to the Orishas. If I am neither, then I must not respect my ancestors. This argument more than any other frustrates me. It assumes that you can tell my racial makeup by the color of my skin, it assumes that I’m ashamed to be an African- American, and it assumes I have no honor whatsoever for the family that bore me. None of these is true.”

On a topic very closely related and intertwined with racism and neocolonialism in Paganism: Crystal Blanton writes over at Daughters of Eve about Avoiding Appropriation and the Perpetuation of Privilege. “It is quite disheartening that we still live in a time when People of Color’s voices are silenced by those of dominant cultures within our society. While we are moving through a time of such intensity around the needs, pain and brutality being experienced by People of Color, especially Black People, it is one of the most important times to be self aware and cognizant of the ways we participate in the reinforcing of white supremacist culture in this country. We collectively support systems of oppression and harm by ignoring the damage, continuing the damage, being complacent in the face of the damage, or by using the power created by the damage, to thrive. All of these things support and reinforce systems of disenfranchisement and racism in this country and around the world.”

More from Black Witch, this time on a disturbing example of crypto-fascism in Paganism – she answers a question on exclusion of people of colour based on ‘genetics/heritage’ in Paganism. “In the Pagan community I interact with (which is mostly white), conversations often revolve around trying to figure out which of the European ethnic groups a person descends from is the one he/she/ze feels the most connected to, or identifies the most with, in order to pick out which flavor of ethnic Paganism (Germanic/Irish/etc.) to practice. I pointed out that this was a part of white privilege, from not having been subjected to the ethnocide of slavery, and that African-Americans didn’t have the luxury of picking out which ethnic group they feel like the most. One responder said that all African-Americans had to do was take a genetic test to determine which ethnic group they’re descended from, and make a pagan religion based on that…”

And don’t forget Kavita Maya, who is researching racism and neocolonialism in the goddess movement. Her work is very accessible to non-academic readers. Try this article to start with.

Let Us Listen

Speaking is easy. Listening is hard.

Imagine you’re on an axis of privilege in the current conversation. For example, you are a white person talking to or about people of colour. What do you think the balance of speaking vs listening should be?

I consider that, if we find ourselves too busy talking about the situation to listen to the people facing oppression, then we are participating in the oppression. We need to stop talking and listen.

It’s very hard to listen to people of colour in Paganism. This is partly because there are so very few of them (because of some of what is described above). Often, another reason is that their stories can make us uncomfortable about our privilege and about our religious and political positions. Both of which make it all the more important that we listen.

We are doing something wrong in Paganism. We are excluding people. You can tell by the sea of white faces in the Pagan community. You can tell by the stories people of colour tell and the work coming out of research they are doing. It is time for us to listen, to ask people why this is happening, and to listen to the answers. To stop talking, from our position of privilege as white Pagans in a white-dominated, white-washed Pagan community, and simply to listen.

Derailing the Conversation: A Form of Not Listening

Photo: White hand covering black mouth. Text above reads: “Black people created #BlackLivesMatter and then white people created #AllLivesMatter. Pictoral representation.”

There is something in debating called derailing. It is about turning the conversation around, making it about something else (e.g. about you), so that you don’t have to address what the other person is saying. By derailing, you ensure you don’t have to face the darker sides of yourself or of a situation. It allows you to talk, endlessly – rather than ever having to listen.

The following examples illustrate typical derailing strategies. Some are lifted straight from real conversations I’ve had or seen.

  • “I know some disabled people are living in terrible poverty, but we need to sort out the rates of disability benefit fraud*, and surely you don’t disagree that that’s a bad thing?” This involves changing the terms of the conversation, refusing to debate the issue that the marginalised person wants to talk about, and instead redirecting toward something that isn’t relevant but seems to be. It’s a silencing technique.
  • “Don’t call me a cis person. I haven’t chosen that word. Now I want to talk about me and how you’ve offended me, rather than the way I’m treating you.” Or, worse, “The debate about whether trans people should be allowed to use bathrooms appropriate to their gender is about safety! I’m not trans-phobic! I certainly don’t believe my majority views are going to lead to an increase in violence against and murder of trans people! I mean, does that even happen?” In the second example, the derailing involves changing the terms of the conversation, and erasing oppression in the process – not allowing the other person to speak about their oppression. In the first example, the speaker is moving the focus away from the marginalised person, onto themselves. This way the speaker doesn’t need to examine their views in any detail and can stay in their comfort zone. “You’ve offended me!” is heard far too often in debates around oppression and marginalisation – when it’s not actually about you.
  • People of colour experience this kind of derailing all the time, especially in settings where they are very marginalised (such as the Pagan community). One horrendous example is the way “Black lives matter” was hijacked, white people demanding that “All lives matter” be said instead. This prioritises the hurt feelings of the majority white population, who rarely have to fear police violence and don’t deal with the constant threat that they will be killed on the street, over the experiences of the oppressed group. It also once again changes the terms of the conversation, making it all about us. (Follow Crystal Blanton on social media to see the scary levels of racism and violence being faced by people of colour in the US today, as terrifying examples. If you still want to talk about your hurt feelings after seeing all of that, I’ll be surprised.)

Derailing takes the focus off the marginalised people calling for change, and focuses it back on the majority. It draws attention away from changes we need to make in ourselves, and turns it onto to our fragile feelings. You’ve offended me by calling me a racist/calling out my disablism/drawing my attention to my privilege in this situation.

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Image: a man on a roof with a megaphone. Source: A. Carroll, flickr

Of course, it’s a different situation when it’s a person from the majority group criticising the behaviour of others from the majority group. In many contexts, white people talking about black people are taken more seriously and find themselves listened to more. (That’s why I talk about trying to ‘hand back the megaphone’ that I have, as a white person, to people of colour (though I fail at this all the time), and why I value non-disabled allies of disability rights a great deal.)

And sometimes, in speaking about oppression, the majority ally gets it wrong, distracted by their own privilege. That’s where it gets really complicated. If you speak on behalf of others or in support of others, you have to do a lot of work to ensure your voice doesn’t drown out theirs. You have to be careful not to steal their ideas and pass them off as your own. And you have to be particularly attentive to your privilege and its effects. One example might be calling out racism in groups you do not belong to while claiming that the groups you do belong to are immune to it. (I have done this.)

We all make mistakes based on our privilege. When people on the axis of oppression draw our attention to these mistakes, it’s our responsibility to deal with the effects of our privilege there.

But if that’s all that people are ever talking about, and the people talking about this are the privileged people rather than the oppressed people, this can be a form of derailing. It is not acceptable to say “Ha! You’re doing some of the oppression you’re complaining about!” as a derailing tactic to avoid looking at ourselves, our darker sides, and our own oppression of others.

As my next post will talk about, I find it a particularly  worrying sign when the derailing response is to call people to unity and peace, refusing dealing with the issues of privilege and oppression that have been raised, in the process. “Oh no, more controversy in the Pagan community! I hate controversies! Why can’t we just be spiritual?” That’s erasure, silencing a conversation about oppression, and it’s dangerous. Especially in such an important controversy as this. This is not an inter-tradition debate over who worships their gods in a more correct manner, or an argument about what words we use for our traditions, or any other relatively minor differences/issues like that. This is about the ways we are oppressing the Other and slowly sleepwalking towards a community, and a society, that aims to exterminate that Other (whether literally or metaphorically). Our spirituality and religion are political. Claiming that they are not, or that they should not be, is worrying to me. But I’ll get to that.

We need to stop worrying about our feelings and start listening to the victims of our oppression. We will always be able to find something to criticise in the delivery of the message. The message itself is far more important than that.

Are we listening?

Which leads me to Part 2 of this post, which is coming up very shortly and which I will link to here when it’s done…

Three things it is everyone’s duty to do: listen humbly, answer discreetly, and judge kindly.

– Irish triad.

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*Disability benefits fraud accounts is at a rate of 0.5%, according to the DWP’s own estimates, by the way. But that’s another story for another time.

Language, transphobia and hurting others (even if unintentionally)

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EDIT (22/3/15): The producers of the podcast in question have said that they will edit it to remove the slurs (see latest comment on this post). I know that a lot of trans people and their allies will appreciate this. Thanks to Damh for this.

A podcast I admire has engaged in language that has hurt some of its trans listeners. Language that the producers could have edited, but chose not to.

At the same time, I’ve discovered that a polytheist group I used to think very highly of has been expressing violently transphobic sentiments about camps/conferences and women-only spaces. (I’m not linking to the places where, as I haven’t talked to members of this group since it happened so I don’t want to highlight them without right of reply – but the evidence is out there for everyone to see anyway.)

You’ll probably remember the trans-phobic incidents that took place at Pantheacon a few years ago.

All these things are connected, even though the latter two are obviously much more serious than the first. Language hurts, excludes and marginalizes, and it can create environments where certain types of behaviour become considered acceptable or unacceptable.

The comments here are relevant, especially Quill’s comment (about half way down the page) and the following ones. Quill and others talk here about the complex history of certain trans-phobic words, and why they are received as trans-phobic, even if the intention is not to harm. You can deeply hurt people without meaning to. The question then becomes, what are we going to do next? Are we going to acknowledge we all make mistakes, apologise and try to rectify the situation? Or are we going to dig in our heels and say “I didn’t mean it like that?” That can heap pain onto pain, and we can become a major part of the problem. And I, personally, don’t want to be part of the problem.

Everyone reading this probably knows that my partner is non-binary gendered – meaning they consider themselves neither a woman nor a man. It’s been a long road for me to get to some understanding of that, and I have failed a *lot* along the way. I’m working hard on doing better, not least because when I got ill (three months into my relationship with SJ), they didn’t even consider leaving me, though lots of people around them said that leaving was a good idea. They’ve gone WAY above and beyond the call of duty with me. That’s part of why I feel the need to do the same for them. And when they come home, and have been mis-gendered all day (i.e. called ‘she’, by people who know better), or has been verbally attacked in response to their gender presentation, and they’re in floods of tears, and I can’t help… I feel so helpless, and so angry. And I want to change the world. And I can’t. It would be so easy for me, as a non-trans person (a cisgendered* person), to ignore and overlook this stuff – but I need to NOT ignore it, or its effect on people.

I am very frustrated by injustices in the Pagan community at the moment. It’s something I’m really, really struggling with. Some of it is making me afraid to attend in-person Pagan gatherings, or to engage with other Pagans in certain online space. Because I don’t actually want to walk into spaces where I’m supposed to be sharing ritual or discussion with people, and end up feeling marginalized and hurt, or see others being marginalized and hurt.

I am one person and I can’t solve all the problems. I wish I had more people around me who wanted to help. I wish there were, for example, more disabled people and allies campaigning for radical change of attitudes and inclusivity towards disabled people in our communities. I get sad, being reminded of how much more we need to work towards all kinds of equality in the Pagan and druid communities. Surely we, who know how all life is interconnected, and therefore how much we can do harm to each other, can do better.

I want to see clearer equality policies in Druid and/or Pagan groups, that really, practically address things like exclusion of disabled people, transgendered people, black and ethnic minority people, and many others. I want to see the people responsible for those policies consulting with those groups, to avoid mistakes. (OBOD’s ban on people with certain mental health problems doing their grades is a major issue in point.) I am running all over the place, exhausting myself, trying to offer myself as a resource for this. But there are only so many doors I can bang on, before I realise that they’re not going to open to me.

And then… what?

And as I write this, I feel this great love** for this wonderful, flawed community of beautiful humans, the modern druid community, that has embraced someone as weird as me. And I know there’s always, always hope. Somewhere.

In other news, I miss my raggle-taggle bunch of druid-y friends up north today.

Love, as always, from your sensitive, thoughtful urban druid. (For whom sensitivity sometimes becomes a curse. But it’s one I’d never ask to have lifted. Not on this turn around the Wheel.)

Resources
Galop, which does a lot of work around LGBT hate crime, and their page on transphobia
Polytheists Against the Gender Binary and Gender Normativity, especially the ‘how to help’ section
A free, interesting book on the subject: Gender and Transgender in Modern Paganism

*That simply means someone whose gender identity is the same as their biological sex.

**Apologies for soppiness. My usual crunchy shell of cynicism doesn’t seem to be working today. Would someone please turn it on and off again for me? Thank you.

Voting, Politics and the Xartus: Paganism in Practice

I’ve been having a debate with with a friend about politics and voting. (See Cthuludruid’s blog post here.) I’ve been doing my usual reaction to people who yell “Revolution!”, nearly as gleefully as American apocalypse-wishers who hoard food and guns and wait for humanity to return to its true wild ways (only this time with better weapons). Cthuldruid points out to me, elsewhere, that he’s not talking about violent revolution – although that’s primarily what we see, in revolutions throughout history. But even where that’s not what happens, theorising about change feels so useless sometimes.

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Shamanism

I posted this over at the Druid Network’s social site recently. I realised that it was as long as a blog post (sorry, TDN people!) – and I thought it was worth sharing here. This is the reason why I’ll never use the term shamanism. While I don’t expect others to agree with me, I do think it’s important that Druids and other Pagans *think* about the language and techniques they use, and decide in an informed way what they are going to do about issues of social justice relating to their spiritual work. After all, as the Druid’s Prayer says: “Grant, O gods… the knowledge of justice, and in the knowledge of it, the love of it.”

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